(Book 2: Hello, Can You Fear Me?)
‘They don’t seem to be back,’ said Sharmila.
‘No,’ Uncle Silver replied solemnly. ‘I have a bad feeling about this.’
‘Don’t worry,’ said Ravi, though it felt like he was just convincing himself. ‘I assumed Subro was done for when he collapsed in the theatre, but he sprung right back. I’m sure we’re worrying over nothing.’
‘Maybe,’ said Madhu, ‘but I’m getting restless sitting here. What if they need our help? We should go look for them.’
‘Okay, but where do we go? They could be anywhere in the zone they were handling, anywhere in the south of the city.’
‘Yeah, but we can retrace their steps. I know the general route Anurag was planning on taking. If we follow it and ask around, it could lead to something. Do we have any InstaCopies of the two? We could show it to the people we ask.’
‘Oh, good thinking! And we most certainly do. I have some in my office. Let me go get them.’
Just as Ravi pushed his chair behind to stand, sounds of rushed footsteps came from outside. The next moment, the door opened and two figures walked in.
Oh good, they’re here? Ravi thought
But it wasn’t Anurag or Subro. It was the policewoman, Fernandes, this time in a khaki uniform. Her expression worried Ravi. She was no longer wearing the strong, determined look he had come to associate with her. Her shoulders were slightly drooping.
A male officer accompanied her, junior to her in appearance. A thicker beard than Uncle Silver’s covered his chin.
‘What — what is the matter, officer?’ Uncle Silver asked. Ravi could sense the dread in the man’s voice, anticipating bad news.
‘Good evening,’ Ms. Fernandes greeted them with a sigh. ‘I’m here to meet Mr. Thakur.’
‘This is Ms. Fernandes, Uncle,’ Ravi introduced. ‘She was at the party yester—.’
‘That will be Inspector Fernandes,’ the policewoman corrected him.
‘Right, right!’ Ravi said. ‘Of course.’
‘Now,’ the inspector told Ravi, ‘I know you said you didn’t see a connection between the ghosts in your images and the ones we’re hearing about, but I will have to ask you to reconsider. The number of reports we are getting is ridiculous! What number are we at, Rehan?’ She looked to her colleague.
The man replied, ‘Thirty-seven reports today, ma’am.’
Inspector Fernandes nodded. ‘Can you believe it?’ she asked Ravi.
‘Wow! That’s a lot indeed,’ he said. ‘But… isn’t that how mass hysteria works? I’d be expecting an even higher number tomorrow.’
‘You’re not wrong, but we can’t just be doing nothing about it now, can we? Hysteria or not, we need to investigate, and the sooner we get to the root of this, the sooner we can put an end to the madness. I think you can help us. If nothing, at least to prove that this is a big hoax.
‘You can talk to these people in ways that the police can’t, Mr. Thakur. You can show them the truth with this device of yours. I urge you to help us. Follow us to one of these locations, see it for yourself. What do you say?’
‘Follow you,’ Ravi repeated absently. ‘You mean right now? But it’s almost dinnertime!’
‘Another example of this thing’s magnitude, Mr. Thakur. Our working hours have gone for a toss. We could really do with some help here, effective help, like the sort you can provide. I can’t force your hand, Mr. Thakur, but assist us here and we will be in your debt. You can expect some favours in the future.’
‘Nothing illegal of course, but you might find us more cooperative and willing than usual. You will find that useful, running a company as you are. Trouble is bound to come up sometime.’
Ravi was already coming up with arguments about how that was ethically wrong even if not illegal. He was strongly against authorities being partial to some parties, whatever the reason. But he let that argument slide. They were pressed for time here.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘I might have helped you out normally, but we have a problem of our own. Right now is not a good time. I hope you understand.’
‘It’s — it’s probably nothing, I hope. Our friends, they were supposed to have returned a couple hours ago, but they haven’t. We’re a little worried. Maybe they got delayed for some reason, maybe not. But we’re going to go look for them. I’m sorry, Inspector. Maybe another time.’
‘Hmm, you’re downplaying the situation,’ she said in response. ‘You must be really worried, all of you.’ She looked around the room, studying everyone’s reactions, then said, ‘I think we can help each other out.’
‘What do you mean?’ Madhu asked.
‘It’s just as I was telling Mr. Thakur. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. Normally, if you approached the police with your problem, we’d tell you to wait forty-eight hours before lodging a complaint. Help us out, though, and I will assign a few of my men to look for your friends. I’ll even give you a few police cars to speed up the search. Does that sound good?’
Ravi wanted to argue about how partiality was wrong, but he didn’t get his chance.
‘That sounds excellent!’ Uncle Silver said. ‘Ravi, I think we should take this opportunity.’
Ravi couldn’t bring himself to argue with the old man. ‘Okay,’ he simply said.
Inspector Fernandes smiled. ‘Excellent! Now, I should be okay with just Mr. Thakur’s help. That leaves the three of you to go with separate search parties. I hope that’s okay?’
‘That works,’ said Uncle Silver.
‘We have a rough idea of their route for the day,’ Madhu reiterated. ‘We can split up based on the morning, afternoon and evening locations.’
‘Right,’ said Inspector Fernandes. Then she turned to her subordinate. ‘Have three teams pick them up. See to the arrangements, then get back here.’
‘Yes, ma’am,’ said Rehan as he went out of the room.
‘I’ll get the InstaCopies from my office,’ Ravi told Madhu. ‘They’ll help you out.’
‘Hurry up,’ Inspector Fernandes advised. ‘I would like to brief you about the case we’ll be heading to. We leave when Rehan gets back.’
‘I’ll be back in a minute,’ Ravi promised, and jogged out through the door.
It was past nine on Ravi’s watch when the police car he was in came to a halt. They were on a narrow, crowded lane with houses crawling on either side. With the car parked as it was, a second vehicle would not be able to make its way past, not that there were any to be expected.
The location was quite dirty. The unpaved lane looked like it had not been swept for weeks. The lower half of the walls were all spattered with red paan stains. Ravi even thought he saw a rat dart across in the distance; he couldn’t be sure in the gloom. Most of the street lights here were out of commission.
He got out of the car, one hand on the Captura to keep it from dangling. A curious stench was in the air. It wasn’t overpowering, just a faint ambient smell of sweat, urine and trash that was characteristic of such places. It was very different to the air-conditioned life Ravi was used to.
As he looked around, he noticed the houses were rather lazily built. Not only were the walls very damaged with paint peeling off and bricks visible in places, but the construction of the structures itself was erroneous. Walls rose out at odd angles, and the houses were drastically out of line with each other. Geometry and consistency had apparently gone for a toss when they were being built. The buildings appeared to have been dropped pell-mell.
The doors and windows were quite old-fashioned. They had a nostalgic quality about them, but not enough to enchant Ravi. He would rather they finished their business and got back to the world he was more familiar with. When Inspector Fernandes and Rehan joined him, they displayed no such displeasure.
The inspector walked up to the entrance of the house that they had parked next to. She knocked on the blue, plastic door, and a moment later, it opened, tilting awkwardly where the lowest hinge was loose.
‘Mr. Sen, isn’t it?’ Fernandes asked the man who had opened the door. ‘Okay for us to drop in at this hour?’
‘No problem,’ the man replied, though he didn’t give way at once. Looking back inside the house, he called, ‘Oye, you lot, stop playing here, we have guests. Tell your mother to bring out some snacks. Then stay inside.’ After that he moved away to let the visitors in.
‘Snacks won’t be necessary,’ Fernandes told him as she entered. She took off her shoes at the door.
‘I must insist,’ the man’s voice said in response. ‘Guests must be treated to food, it is customary.’
Ravi let Rehan go ahead before him. When he finally followed in, Ravi heard Fernandes say, ‘Only a little bit then.’
The inside of the house was even smaller than Ravi had imagined. He hadn’t accounted for furniture when viewing it from outside. It wasn’t that there were a lot of possessions inside, but when the area was limited to begin with, even the most basic stuff ate up a significant chunk of space.
Ravi took off his shoes and proceeded in to take a good look at his host.
Mr. Sen was a reasonably tall man dressed in a striped, blue-and-white shirt and a checked lungi. His body had very little meat on it, giving his jaw a prominent definition and the nerves on his arms more advertisement than desired.
He stood before an opening in a wall that led into a corridor. Ravi guessed that the kids had gone in from there.
The man hadn’t noticed Ravi, until now, but the moment his eyes caught sight of him, a deep frown appeared on his face.
‘I’m sorry, but you’re not welcome here,’ he grumbled.